Sarin denial and journalism's race to the bottom

Sarin denial and journalism's race to the bottom
Comment: When Assad gassed his own people in Khan Sheikhoun, a cluster of journalists flocked to give him cover. They must all be held to account, writes Alexander Schinis.
7 min read
13 Sep, 2017
The UN report found that forces aligned with Assad attacked the village with sarin gas[Getty]
On 4 April 2017, a toxic chemical attack on the Syrian village of Khan Sheikhoun killed 83 people, most of them civilians.

After five long months, the United Nations' Commission of Inquiry into the Syrian conflict published the findings of their investigation into the nature and perpetrator of the attack on 6 September. The result: That forces aligned with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attacked the village with sarin gas, an act that is tantamount to war crimes.

The UN report further confirms facts that have been established numerous times. Expert opinion on the findings was, and remains nearly unanimous. The facts are as follows: The perpetrator of the attack was the Syrian regime; the chemical agent used in the attack was sarin, a deadly and illegal nerve agent; and the result was at least 70 dead civilians.

Sources corroborating the facts around Khan Sheikhoun range from the journalistic, such as The New York Times, to the UN watchdogs at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), to the French Foreign Ministry, to the independent open-source investigators of Bellingcat, and even include the investigators at Human Rights Watch. The list goes on.

However, some members of the media responded with doubt to this near-unanimous expert consensus. Indeed, a small but dedicated number of journalists and bloggers have put a great deal of effort into giving airtime to conspiracy theories as a way to explain what happened at Khan Sheikhoun.

It is difficult to say what kind of damage Hersh has done to public trust in journalism as a whole

Author and lecturer Idrees Ahmad identified the most prominent of these conspiracy theories when writing for Al-Jazeera in July of this year. The false account of the sarin attack claimed that sarin was not used at all. Instead, it alleged that Syrian aircraft targeted "a jihadist meeting site" not with chemical weapons, but with "conventional explosives".

Based only on an interview with one anonymous US intelligence officer, the account asserts that the bombing had "triggered a series of secondary explosions that could have generated a huge toxic cloud". The origin of this deadly toxin, the officer speculates, was fertilizer stored in the bombed structure.

This story, of course, contravenes all available evidence. No experts familiar with the matter promote this version of events. Under most circumstances, the foolish content of this report could be cast into the dustbin of history with no harm done. The problem, however, is that this report in particular was peddled by none other than award-winning journalist Seymour Hersh.

Read more: Syrian regime dropped chemical bomb on Khan Sheikhoun: UN

Hersh earned his tremendous reputation for investigative journalism first by breaking the story of US troops' massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai as well as the prisoner abuse scandal by US forces at Abu Ghraib prison.

His latest work, however, is poorly-sourced and falls far short by any measure of rigorous journalism. The once-celebrated Hersh, Ahmad laments, has all but given up on publishing fact-checked stories in favour of "uncorroborated claims of anonymous sources to tell tall tales that contradict available evidence".

In doing so, it is difficult to say what kind of damage Hersh has done to public trust in journalism as a whole, as well as to the ongoing effort of journalists to expose the truth of the crimes taking place in Syria in particular.

Sadly, Hersh was not alone in broadcasting conspiracy theories surrounding the sarin attack. He received assistance from the co-founder of The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald, who shared Hersh's sarin denial to an audience of nearly one million Twitter followers. He went one step further and defended Hersh against other journalists who criticised Hersh's shoddy work.

Hersh's sarin denial also received promotion from AlterNet. Here, Ken Klippenstein interviewed the veteran journalist with softball questions, never once pressing him on the details or sourcing used in his account of the events at Khan Sheikhoun.

Klippenstein even allows Hersh to disparage factual open source breakdowns of his own false account, accusing his transparent critics at Bellingcat of "offer[ing] no facts". Incidentally, Bellingcat's narrative of Khan Sheikhoun is supported by the UN and OPCW; Hersh's is not.

This did not prevent other Alternet bloggers from joining in to promote Hersh's false Khan Sheikhoun story and to disparage anyone who dared to challenge it.

Reporting on the truth is incidental to these writers

Hersh and his coterie of admirers can be forgiven for making mistakes. The problem is that they all refuse to concede their errors. Indeed, less than one week before the UN's latest report, Hersh himself was designated to receive the Sam Adams Award in recognition of its recipient's "integrity and truth-telling".

It is clear that in spite of its thorough debunking, Hersh's conspiracy version of events continues to gain traction. Furthermore, none of the publications, journalists, or bloggers mentioned here have issued retractions of any kind as of the writing of this article.

One can imagine at least two reasons for persisting in a fraudulent line of conspiratorial thinking: Profit or ideology.

For some publishers, it is a simple matter of selling conspiracy. (As Ahmad notes, "every publisher knows that conspiracism pays.")

Those who rally around a narrative of sarin denial are the same writers and journalists whose articles receive clicks by virtue of denying any widely accepted understanding of any given events.

Reporting on the truth is incidental to these writers. The UN report will roll off their respective consciences like water off a duck's back, and they will continue to publish conspiracy and controversy without missing a beat.

In this context, it falls to audiences to hold authors of irresponsible blogging and news coverage accountable

Some, however, are "true believers". Their worldview, in regards to Syria, rests on a few fundamental positions: That the regime is fundamentally good; that it is backed into a corner by prowling imperialist powers; that it is locked in a noble struggle for survival against those powers.

When the regime used sarin against its own population, it disproved these foundational assertions. But for these sarin deniers, it is critical to dispute the established truth of the regime's sarin attack because it challenges the facts upon which they have built their very identities. No amount of evidence will persuade them otherwise.

Excluding this category, the UN report is only the latest strike against the Assad regime's innumerable crimes. It leads us to the conclusion that the Assad regime must be held accountable by the international community for its criminality. This is and will continue to be, a long and difficult fight.

The report's reception by Hersh's media cohort, however, has ramifications that extend beyond the Syrian conflict. The incident is revealing about the segment of the US-based media represented by Hersh and his supporters - specifically, its inclination to provide coverage to absurd positions on well-established events.

Even with all the evidence in the open, Hersh and his allies have not amended their Khan Sheikhoun falsehoods. Their (non)response to the UN report brings us to conclude that only outside pressure will lead Hersh's clique to recant their tale of conspiracy.

We live in an age of "alternative facts". Whitewashing war crimes, however, is one step too far. Considering that the stakes of the Syrian conflict are literally life and death, the public cannot dismiss the trend of obscuring the truth by self-professed journalists.

In this context, it falls to audiences to hold authors of irresponsible blogging and news coverage accountable. 

The first step of that accountability is to issue retractions and apologies. All of those mentioned herein are bound by their professional integrity and dedication to the spirit of journalism to do so as soon as possible.

Alexander Schinis is a freelance writer and analyst. He holds a Master's degree from New York University's Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Follow him on Twitter: @aschinis89

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.